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25.11.2019 Europe

Women's self-defense classes target domestic violence in France [Video]

By Rosie Collyer - RFI
RFI/Rosie Collyer
NOV 25, 2019 EUROPE

With 116 women killed by their male partners in France since the start of the year, and low conviction rates in the courts, some women are turning to boxing and self-defense classes to avoid domestic violence.

Audrey Chenu has been a tomboy ever since she can remember. Audrey rebelled against sexist stereotypes in her teens to the extent that she became a drug dealer. She spent two years in prison, which proved to be the catalyst that turned her life in a positive direction. Audrey is now a primary school teacher by day, and trains women in boxing and self-defense by night.

Why are your boxing and self-defense classes women-only?

Women tell me that they feel uncomfortable learning to box with men because they are often judged on their appearance. There's also an element of humiliation in male-led classes. Humiliation in the sense that if you can't reach a certain goal or number of press ups then you are humiliated. So, these days I teach self-defense from a feminist perspective. The atmosphere in our classes is different. At least that's what the people who participate in our courses say. I'm committed to helping people reach their goals, but always with a smile on my face.

Hundreds of women are killed by their partners every year in France. How does that make you feel?

It makes me angry, of course, and has for a very long time. But you can't be angry forever because it's not good to store up negative energy. It ends up making you depressed, which is an illness I have experienced. Fortunately, I've had a punch bag for years, and I used it to take my frustration on. I scream and shout while punching it, which makes me feel better about life. But the fact remains that only one out of every hundred domestic assault cases end up in a conviction. It's scandalous that the justice system in France doesn't seem to consider domestic abuse as a crime.

Have you ever experienced domestic violence?

I had been together with a guy for around six months when he started to become jealous and make physical threats. One day he hit me. He broke a chair over me. I defended myself as I had a hand gun. I fired it at him, but he managed to push the gun away. So since the age of 18 I have had 17 stitches in my forearm. That was the first time I was a victim of domestic violence.

What caused you to rebel as a teenager and eventually end up in prison for dealing cannabis?

As an adolescent I was very conscious of the inequalities between the sexes. For instance, my brothers were allowed to play far from where we lived, but I was always told to stay.close by home. That caused me want to break the rules. I started smoking cannabis. From there I began organising the moving of large quantities of cannabis through a fairly large network of people. We ended up getting caught and I spent two years in prison between the ages of 18 and 20.

What role did sport play while you were in prison?

I stopped taking drugs when I got to prison. I needed to let off steam and I wanted to avoid becoming a wreck. I saw a lot of women who had let themselves go physically and mentally, who took a lot of medication, etc. Sport was a way for me to stay balanced while I was in prison.

What can women do to fight domestic violence?

When I tell people that I box men always say: “don't mess with that one”. To me that just reveals their cowardice, in that animals attack people who show fear. If you believe in yourself, you are comfortable in yourself, you are balanced and you feel your physical and mental force, then that can't be taken away from you. If they think about it, the oppression of women is usually related to their bodies, so if you train and keep yourself in good mental and physical shape, I think you are less likely to be attacked.

Should violence be used to fight violence?
I'm not someone who is violence prone, but I think that sometimes violence is the only way to respond to violence. In terms of how to stop it, it's a question of being able to control one's fear.